Bagpiper plays nightly streetside serenade to lift spirits, cure cabin fever

Every night, Joseph MacKenzie — his long white beard blowing in the wind — steps onto his front deck and bellows out a song on the bagpipes. 

The sunset performances have become a nightly ritual for the Sherwood Park man during the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bagpipes were traditionally played by the Scottish to give them courage in battle and MacKenzie has a similar aim in mind when he plays classics like Scots Wha Hae and the Pibroch of Donald Dhu. 

MacKenzie hopes the call of the pipes will lift people’s spirits and create a sense of community.

“Nobody really knows each other here very well,” he said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“You know your immediate neighbours and that sort of thing but as we were entering a stage of a social questionability, I thought it was important that we just have a little bit of unity.” 

‘Heralding in the evening’ 

MacKenzie has played on and off for about 50 years. Last month, beginning to grow bored at home, he decided to take his set of pipes out of storage and begin playing for the benefit of his neighbours in the Gilmore Park neighbourhood.

The bagpipes, known for a drone so loud they are best played in the open fields of the Scottish Highlands, seemed the perfect “social distancing tool,” he said.

The performances — each night at 7 p.m. — also give him “something to do,” MacKenzie said. On Sunday nights, he really gets into the spirit, donning his full regalia of tartan kilt and tam.

MacKenzie likens his single-song concerts to the noon-hour sirens, military horns commonly heard in decades past.

“It’s important to mark the time, especially when the days melt into each other and people start to forget what time of the day it is,” he said. 

“I’m heralding in the evening, is the basic idea, and making sure people are aware of that OK, we can stop thinking about today, start settling down and getting ready for tomorrow.

“We’ve had snowy days and sunny days and everything in between. There some hardcore folk are making it part of their day so that’s nice to see.”

And while MacKenzie’s nightly performances occur with military precision, his wife suggests the pipes are becoming somewhat of an obsession for her spouse, no matter what time it is. 

“I’m the one that listens to him practice three times a day in the house,” Sue MacKenzie said with a chortle.

“Sure, it’s loud but it’s nice actually and everybody loves them, I’m starting to realize. 

“All the neighbours around us open their doors and listen and we have lots of seniors that come over to us. I think it’s very comforting to have something happen every day.” 

MacKenzie’s jigs and reels seem to be having the desired effect. A month since he began, his neighbours now gather on the sidewalk every night to listen from a safe distance. Some fans drive from Edmonton.

Marlene Komick, who lives nearby, said the hum of the bagpipes is a comfort.

I hope the virus is over soon. Then I’ll miss the bagpipes of course.– Larry Swanson

“It’s very good,” she said. “I grew up listening to the bagpipes in my hometown so it really is nice.” 

Larry Swanson, who lives down the street, may be the most dedicated of MacKenzie’s fans. He has listened every to every performance, 29 nights in a row.

The music, he said, gives him something to look forward to in these trying times. 

“I live in the area so I just walk up, get my exercise and listen to Joe play for a little bit,” Swanson said. 

“He does a good job. Yeah, I hope the virus is over soon. Then I’ll miss the bagpipes, of course but I’d rather have that virus gone.”

There’s no bad time for bagpipes. We meet a Sherwood Park man bringing people together — safely — every night. 4:45

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